Talk at Garland ISD Today, September 23
Talking with Garland ISD today in the morning to middle school and high schoolers and tonight for parents. I won't have a long speaking time, but want to list my Top Ten for wellness that I use when I speak at The Unversity of Notre Dame and other college campuses. This top ten list began as a Psychology Today blog that's received over 13,000 hits, and has been refined as I gain more information from my own research and exposure from talks with students. Uniformly when I speak to college counseling centers I am told - "This needs to reach students BEFORE they come to college. By the time they reach college, habits are set and hard to change." Thank you Garland ISD for teaching students early and giving them the knowledge they need to maintain their mental health.
I'm listing it again here to make it easy for Garland ISD parents and students to find!
Top Ten for Mental Health Brain Protection for College Students
Julie Kosnik Hersh
Mental illness, like many diseases, is prime a example of “what comes first?” Do genetics cause mental illness or does the environment breed it? The answer is both. How we react to our environment determines our mental health, oftentimes more than the environment itself. We’ve all seen one person devastated by failure or disappointment, while another person uses that same situation as motivation for future success. As Charles Darwin said: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is that one that is the most adaptable to change."
When I arrived a freshman at Notre Dame in 1978, I was frightened I might flunk out or gain 15 pounds. Depression or mental illness didn’t blip on my radar of concerns. During January of 1979, because of a series of issues, I plunged into a depression that caused my GPA to drop from a 3.4 to 2.2, and left me feeling miserable for most of my first two years in college. Knowing myself now, over 30 years later, I’ve developed a list of my list of the top ten things I could have done to preserve my mental and physical health. This list may not work for everyone, but it can be used as a catalyst to create a wellness list of your own.
- Sleep. Get the right amount. As a college freshman, I skimped on sleep. Late night studies, parties and anxiety chipped away at sleep until insomnia became a problem. Most depressed people report sleep problems. Insomnia often accompanies suicide.
- Nutrition. If needed take a Vitamin D supplement, add in fish oil for Omega III fatty acid. I’m convinced that Seasonal Affect Disorder (caused by lack of sunlight and a Vitamin D deficiency) played a part in my depression. I try to get 15 minutes of unprotected sunlight every day.
- Exercise. Due to an injury, I abandoned running which fed my depressive spiral. Now if I’m injured, I compensate with another form of exercise. Even a brisk walk every day helps. For more information on exercise and brain function read Spark by John Ratey.
- Be aware the Impact of Alcohol/Drugs and take medication if prescribed. Not everyone needs medication for mental health, but everyone needs to understand the impact of alcohol and drugs on brain function. Alcohol is a depressant, impacting dopamine in the brain. If you have a tendency to be depressed, alcohol or illegal drugs only compounds the impact of depression. Dopamine increases when alcohol is consumed, but once a person stops drinking, dopamine decreases at twice the rate. This leaves brain in a dopamine deficit which makes it doubly hard to fight depression.
- Feed your brain with courses that excite you. A happy brain is a more productive brain. Obviously there are some courses that are difficult and necessary for a specific degree, but try to balance those courses with ones that inspire. My GPA bounced from 2.2 back to Dean’s List with a few elective courses. Strangely enough, I aced Quantitative Methods when I struggled with Statistics in the prior year. The difference? I took my electives in areas that ignited my interest (e.g., Poetry Writing, Mysticism). The courses that excited my brain unlocked my overall brain function.
- Avoid romantic relationships that exclude friendships. At ND, I always had a boyfriend. Part of this was survival. With a 5:1 ratio back in those days, a woman felt a little like Bambi at the start of hunting season. A boyfriend provided security and protection, until of course, the relationship ended. I tended to have a boyfriend and adopt his friends. When we broke up, I lost my boyfriend and my social network. If I had a do-over, I would spend more time developing my friendships with other women.
- Get a mentor. Someone 10 years or more older can act as a sounding board when problems are small and easily solved. In college, everyone is about the same age, causing the problems of that age group to escalate out of proportion. An older person could have helped me maintain a sense of humor about the problems I faced. One of my most valued friends today is an 85 year-old man who helps me keep my 54 year-old worries in check.
- Allow time for introspection. Call this prayer, journaling, meditation, or chill time. I never allowed enough time for this. I do best when I spend some time by myself, offline, where I breathe and acknowledge that I am part of a world that extends beyond my own body and needs.
- Plan proactively for a health crisis and know the signs of depression. Store the number for the student counseling center in your phone. Drop by the counseling center when you are well, just so you know where it is. If you wait until you are depressed to find out where you can get help, oftentimes you won’t have the energy to find help. Know the signs of depression so you can recognize them in yourself or others. Check out this list from the Grant Halliburton Foundation: http://www.granthalliburton.org/knowthesigns.html.Here is a 24-hour number for support: 1-800-873-TALK.
- Remember that your value is more than what you do. High achieving college students don’t typically plan for failure. When failure happens, shock sets in. Some of us compound failure by extending the reach of an incident. A simple breakup escalates to “I’m unlovable, I’ll never marry” or a bad grade into “I’m stupid, I’ll never amount to anything.” Oftentimes, the moments we believe to be the worst in our lives become the turning point to a better path we never imagined. Unfortunately, we often only see the path in retrospect. In the gray period of uncertainty, try to remember that you have value just in being. You might not believe this axiom for a few more decades. I certainly didn’t at your age. I wish I had. I would have worried about far less and laughed a lot more. This lesson humbles us, yet frees us to pursue our passions in the same instant.
I had 2.5 phenomenal years at the University of Notre Dame. For the other 1.5 years, I was okay to miserable. If I had understood myself better then, my depressive episode could have been shorter and less severe. Hopefully this information will help others maximize their college experience.
For more information about Julie K Hersh check out her website: www.struckbyliving.com.